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Understanding Stress

Co-ord member John Southwell, CENTRAL & WEST LANCS BRANCH officer discusses Stress defines it, and looks at the negative and positive aspects of stress. He also suggests safety reps can have a positive effect on people with stress and how we can guide management to deal with this more effectively:

Stress, is often thought of as the bane of modern day life. We want things faster better more efficient, and more productive than yesterday. Stress can invade every aspect of our life at home, at work, traveling, watching the TV, even just reading the newspaper. It affects us on waking and throughout the day and can even affect us while we sleep. It can affect the hours of sleep, the quality of sleep and the normal sleep pattern we are used to.

Stress can be defined as the "wear and tear" our bodies experience as we adjust to our continually changing environment; it has physical and emotional effects on us and can create positive or negative feelings.

As a positive influence, stress can help compel us to action; it can result in a new awareness and exciting new perspectives. As a negative influence, it can result in feelings of distrust, rejection, anger, and depression, which in turn can lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, rashes, insomnia, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. With the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a job promotion, or a new relationship, we experience stress as we readjust our lives. In so adjusting to different circumstances, stress will help or hinder us depending on how we react to the situation.

Safety reps can become involved, in groups set up to oversee risk assessments on stress, but must   make it clear that they are there simply to give advice and that the risk assessment is the responsibility of management.

This is important because safety reps want to ensure that they can make representations if the risk assessments are inadequate, or if they do not lead to the necessary action or resources being made available.

As a response to the increase in stress the CWU carried out a major survey involving 20,000 CWU members & this provided one of the most comprehensive reports produced on work related stress. 

The survey was voluntary, seventy-seven percent of the people that responded were male and thirty-three percent female. Eighty-five percent of all responses were full time. Although 20,000 survey forms were sent out only 2,857 were returned, the company’s who were included in the survey were BT, Alliance & Lester, Blue Arrow, Cable & Wireless and the Post Office.(i)

Work related stress is now the second largest occupational health problem in the UK & is a serious problem for many CWU members. Because of this survey there will be a campaign to tackle work related stress.

A full analysis is available to download from:

Another survey in May 2004 quoted that 12.8 Million days a year are lost due to stress; this figure is now 13.7 million an increase of nearly a million in only 4 years.  This is maybe no surprise due to the extra demands to increase work productivity and targets, especially in call centres. Employees also like to feel they are in control of their job, and should be allowed some say perhaps in the way the work is done or set out. They also need support from managers; this can take many forms and even when in place is very much down to the individual manager. How a manager deals with stressed employees could determine whether he is looked upon as a good or poor manager.

Safety reps could be involved in setting up a standard procedure to enable all managers to deal with stress in the same manner, across the company.  Good interaction with your work colleagues and management alike is also important and at best everyone will get along and make a good team, at worst they will disagree and things such as bullying could arise.

Laptops, mobile phones and desktops that are all necessary technologies and in themselves can cause stress.

This technology is now well established into our work ethic, from a BT perspective everything is on the web (LIVE) log sheets, timesheets, stores, short interval control   (SIC) information, point of intervention (POI), and of course E-mail the list is endless. BT have a stress management tool called STREAM and is meant to identify work pressures and recommend control measures ( ii ), but the survey may not do this as it relies on the manager seeing the survey and the manager cold be part of the stress. Stress could also be made worse by a number of factors including: long hours, shift work, too much or too little work, lack of control and conflicting demands, especially amongst the lower grades. Also, poor management, bad relationships with work colleagues, repetitive work, boredom and lack of job satisfaction, amongst many others.

While at work we need, control, support, good working relationships, specific roles and agreed change. 

Personal stress as opposed to stress at work is what some call ‘home life’. In Britain we work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe and research shows we are left feeling stressed, exhausted and depressed by the struggle to meet the competing demands of home and work life. In a bid to do everything, we feel like we're failing to do anything well. The long hour’s culture is just as prevalent in the public sector as in blue chip companies.

There is no fail-safe recipe for achieving a healthy balance. Each family needs to find a solution that suits them.

However, a first step is to look at whether your working hours fit in with what your family needs. If not, you might ask your employer if you can change your hours to part-time or to work more flexibly.

Most employers should consider an employee's request to change their hours if required, not just turn the request down immediately. If the hours cannot be changed an explanation should be given and perhaps an alternative to the problem. In the UK we currently have to rely on employers being open-minded about flexible working to achieve a better work-life balance. Rights in the Employment Bill (iii), give all parents with children under six and all parents of children with disabilities a legal right to request to work flexibly. People should also have "exit times" everyday that they stick to. You don't get work-life balance if you regularly take work home and it spills over into your private life. Financial stress is more common now perhaps caused by job loss, having a child, divorce or a death in the family. This can lead to feelings of insecurity, fear, anxiety, anger and of course depression.

The HSE Chair Ms Hackitt detailed the changes Great Britain faces saying that 240 deaths a year at work, 30,000 major injuries & that 2.3 million people have an illness caused or made worse by work, these include musculoskeletal disorders, asbestos related diseases and asthma. (iv)

There are many examples of stress, arguments, disagreements, and conflicts all of which cause changes in your personal life. Catching cold, breaking an arm, a skin infection, a sore back, are all changes in your body condition. A major source of stress is overloading yourself, perhaps doing too much overtime to pay off debts, leaving no time for rest and recuperation. Many in the healthcare professions are at particular risk from stress and stress-related performance issues, with long hours and covering for absent colleagues. It is the duty of all employers to look after their staff and make sure there is a support mechanism in place.

In conclusion stress is the uncomfortable gap between, how we would like our life to be and how it actually is. I think the trick is not allowing this gap to grow, the HSE have produced a guide for managers called Tackling work-related stress. (v) Every employer should use it when considering how to address a problem of stress. This guide puts risk assessment at the heart of any plan to reduce the risk of work-related stress. However the HSE stresses that before a risk assessment is undertaken the employer should take steps to talk to their staff about work related stress and what it is they want to identify. They also need to explain that they are setting up a group that will encompass the union, a Health and Safety officer & one or more manager. They must also share what they are trying to achieve with staff members and explain the first steps to undertake risk assessment. Lastly they must have a date when the key findings of the risk assessment are to be seen.

We have identified stress and how it affects the life of millions of workers.

Management with the help of reps can alleviate stress and help people cope better I stressful situations. What is needed is more knowledge, time for courses on stress for employers and employees and for people to be able to talk to specific individuals who will help or show them how to get further assistance.


(i)   CWU Accessed 21/09/08
(ii)     Accessed 27/09/08 CWU Website
(iii)    Accessed 27/09/08 BERR Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform.
(iv)  Accessed 30/09/08 HSE Press
(v)  Accessed 05/10/08 HSE pdf.

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